Politics & Government

Stop making harassment victims 'tell their story over and over' to colleagues, lawmaker says

Legislators push for new workplace harassment bill for General Assembly

Senator Erica D. Smith discusses a bill that will change how workplace harassment is reported and assessed at the N.C. General Assembly.
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Senator Erica D. Smith discusses a bill that will change how workplace harassment is reported and assessed at the N.C. General Assembly.

Democratic state lawmakers want to create a confidential way for General Assembly employees to report workplace harassment — including instances of sexual harassment.

Rep. Carla Cunningham of Mecklenburg County sponsored House Bill 1044, which would require the Legislative Services Commission and the Legislative Ethics Committee to develop a "zero tolerance" policy regarding "sexual harassment, abuse, misconduct, gender bias, and all other forms of discrimination in the workplace."

Sen. Erica Smith of Northampton County filed the Senate version of the bill. At a news conference Thursday, she said the current process to address workplace harassment leaves people with little protection.

Under lawmakers' proposal, any complaints would be considered confidential. One person would be designated in the General Assembly's human resources office to receive and investigate any reports of harassment.

"I think one of the things that is propelling this is that women’s stories are resonating with the general public. We see public figures, government officials who are finally being held accountable for their poor behavior,” said Rep. Deb Butler of Wilmington, another sponsor.

"As we approach this in our own house here, we recognize, with any luck, that there are going to be a lot more women elected into this body come November. With any luck, we will have different leadership. We will have a lot of fresh voices so now is a good time to do some housekeeping to make sure we up our game in this arena."

In May, Democratic primary voters in Wake County chose not to re-elect state Rep. Duane Hall, a Democrat facing sexual harassment allegations and calls to resign. First-time candidate Allison Dahle unseated Hall.

General Assembly employees recently had to attend mandatory workplace harassment training sessions, and Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble said work already is being done to ensure that training happens on a regular basis.

The training was not mandatory for lawmakers, but they were provided a video training course from the National Conference of State Legislatures to watch on their own time. Coble said in April he wasn't sure how many lawmakers had watched the video, but he said there had been "pretty good" participation and that he thinks "pretty much everybody we asked to participate has participated."

Under the current process for reporting harassment, legislative employees file complaints with either the House, Senate or Legislative Services Office. The House and Senate follow a similar two-step system, but other legislative staffers have a four-step process which includes multiple discussions with supervisors and directors and the submission of written statements. The two-step system requires staff members to report the problem to an immediate supervisor within 30 calendar days of the incident and then meet with chamber leadership and provide written statements before leadership makes a final decision. If the individual filing a complaint goes through the whole four-step process, it can take 100 days or more to resolve. The two-step process can take 20 or more days to resolve.

"They get to be the district attorney to decide if they're going to move forward with your case, then they get to turn around and be judge and jury on whether you have a case of workplace harassment," Smith said of having to report harassment to House Speaker Tim Moore or Senate leader Phil Berger, both Republicans, under the current process.

"This is a convoluted process that requires a woman or man to have to tell their story over, and over, and over again with colleagues, who could be the colleagues that discriminated against them."

Under the current process, anyone who wants to file a complaint with the Ethics Committee must sign and notarize their complaint, so they cannot be anonymous. However, once the complaint is filed with the committee it is not generally released to the public, so it is unknown if any complaints heard by the committee were for sexual harassment.

Democrats' bill would create a new process for reporting — one where there would be a central person at the General Assembly in human resources who would receive, investigate and make recommendations about sanctions to the Legislative Services Commission and Legislative Ethics Committee.

The bill also writes in protections for interns, pages and unpaid volunteers, who are young adults and in the cases of pages, high school students.

Lucy Russell, a UNC-Chapel Hill student and intern with Smith's office, said it has "become glaringly apparent that the current workplace harassment policy (at the General Assembly) is a broken system."

She said the new bill makes the process easy for all, and "gives interns like (her) a clear path to justice."

The bill does not provide a clear path for women who work inside the General Assembly but are not state employees — like lobbyists. Smith said bill sponsors discussed including lobbyists, but they found that they'd be protected under their employer's policies and could file a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Committee if necessary.

The bill calls for the commission and committee to create "effective and clear sanctions" for sexual harassment, abuse, misconduct or other forms of workplace discrimination. The sanctions would apply to all lawmakers, officers and legislative employees.

Beyond a confidential reporting system, the bill also includes language that would allow the Legislative Services Commission to contract with a third party for confidential information and advice to those who file a complaint and investigative support and advice. The bill includes $50,000 for materials to develop the annual training and $200,000 for contractual services.

All the female lawmakers who make up the NCGA Joint Legislative Democratic Women’s Caucus signed on in support of Cunningham's bill. No members of the Republican majority have signed on, but the House has sent it to a committee for a possible hearing.

Lauren Horsch: 919-836-2801, @LaurenHorsch